It's not a revolution – not quite yet anyway. SiriusXM has no reason to sleep with one eye open, but if things keep evolving the way they have been, Radio Free Song Club could be one of the many spark plugs that helps restart the clunking engine of the music business.
Each month, RFSC singer-songwriters like Freedy Johnston, Laura Cantrell or Peter Holsapple record a new song that gets e-mailed to people who have joined the Club. RFSC’s artists also play a show at Manhattan’s Living Room (capacity 150) once a month. The subversive part? You get the song for free and the show is free. There are over a thousand subscribers to the RFSC, and Cantrell and fellow participant Amy Rigby say gigs and record sale are increasing and raising their profiles as a result. This way of promoting artists is brilliant – in a low-key way. But could it point the way to the future?
Singer/songwriter and RFSC co-creator Kate Jacobs felt that writing songs without any thought as to whether a record label would like them would free up a lot of songwriters. Along with Nicholas Hill, whose past stints include working as a manager, A&R exec and host of on-air programs at SiriusXM, Jacobs created the Song Club in December of 2009. The club's recording studio started at Gary's Chop Shop in Soho, then moved to Brooklyn Recording and a studio called the Maid's Room on Clinton Street before performing and recording at the Living Room in December of 2011.
“My intention in starting Radio Free Song Club has been perfectly realized,” says Jacobs. “It's collegial, and increasingly collaborative. It makes a home for a song – not an easy thing to find in this crowded world – and the immediate audience is a group of writers and musicians that I think are pretty great.”
Holsapple, an occasional blogger for the New York Times who also cuts exquisite pop gems for his longtime band the dB’s, has found a nice niche for himself writing songs for the RFSC. In addition to perking up his sales, Peter went from not putting out any solo albums to packaging his Song Club contributions and selling 200 handmade copies immediately (he would have sold more if he could have "dealt with" the shipping hassles) Holsapple found that this great commune-like platform jump-started his songwriting after taking some time off.
“Peter was so busy working his day job in the arts, he’d pretty much stopped writing songs,”says Nicholas Hill, the Club’s host and co-creator. “It was only when we asked for a tune from him that he finally began writing again. The tune, appropriately enough, was called ‘Oh No, I’ve Got To Write A New Song.’” Says Holsapple of the song, “I think Nick Hill saw it as some sort of anthem for the club, so it became the first song on the first podcast.”
According to Hill, there were virtually no start-up costs (“maybe $2,000-$3,000") but they accept donations on the site and sell a T-shirts with the site’s logo on it for $20. “It's essentially, intentionally, a not-for-profit commune. But it's inspiring artists to write, finish their albums, and be more productive, because they must each have a new song ready each month. Laura Cantrell will have a great album self-written and ready for 2014 only because of the Song Club deadlines.”
Cantrell, a favorite of both Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan whose work has received wide praise, has The Club to thank for inspiring her to write more than ever before. “Before I became associated with the Song Club, I tended to write a lot less, because I was too perfectionistic,” she says. “But because I was involved with the club and had to come up with songs to play pretty often, I didn’t have the luxury of taking forever on a song. I wouldn’t have produced that much work without the Song Club and its deadlines.”
Cantrell sees a synergy between her songs being sent to Song Club members for free and the gigs and work she’s been getting. “It’s hard to tell which influences which,” she says, “but people at gigs in Memphis and Austin tell me they’ve loved the songs from Radio Free and the fact that people get them, at no charge, by e-mail, is slowly spreading the message about us around the country.”
Rigby, another RFSC songwriter who usually tours with her husband, songwriter Wreckless Eric, also has seen a bump it ticket sales. Although, she admits, she couldn’t say for sure. All she knows is that people are "constantly" telling her they heard a song of hers before, which was sent to them by The Song Club. “I’d had to say it’s been a real help in bringing in fans.”
“When we started the shows,” says RFSC songwriter Dave Schramm, who also plays in the All Stars house band at The Living Room, “we probably had about 1,000 people listening. Judging from the hits and the URLs on our site, I’d estimate that we’re now up to about 50,000 people each show who listen later on the site. The more people out there who heard these great songs, the better off the music business would be.”